Remembering Christopher Lee

Remembering Christopher Lee

Felix Garner Davis

Sir Christopher Lee passed away in London, his home city, last Sunday morning and his family publicly announced his death yesterday to a vast outpouring of sorrow. Lee, whose career in film spanned over six decades, featured in over 200 movies. He was knighted for his services to drama and charity in 2009.

After World War II broke out, Lee fought for a brief period in 1939. In early 1940, he worked at Beecham’s, a pharmaceutical company in London, before joining the British Army. His father, who had served in the Army, died of pneumonia in 1941 and Lee volunteered for the Royal Air Force after he realised he had no intention of following his father’s legacy in land-based combat.

He reached the rank of Flight Lieutenant and served until 1946. During his time in the RAF, Lee was engaged in specialised operations, but was reticent about his service when asked in interviews. He was once quoted as saying: ‘I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden — former, present, future — to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that.’

What a badass.

Lee returned to London in 1946 and began pursuing a career as an actor after realising that he couldn’t work an office job any longer. After a slew of small roles, he broke through in 1952, appearing in John Huston’s Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge.

In 1957 he embarked on a two-decade stint with Hammer Pictures, a British production company best known for its Gothic ‘Hammer Horror’ films, appearing once as Frankenstein’s monster and then recurrently as Count Dracula.

Lee’s involvement with Hammer ended when he moved to America, conscious of the possibility of being typecast for the rest of his career if he remained in London. Some critics regard him as the greatest Dracula in cinema history.

My first exposure to Christopher Lee was his turn as assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Mostly due to Lee’s performance, it has always been one of my favourite Bond movies despite the fact that many critics have mixed feelings about the Roger Moore era. In my opinion, Lee’s Scaramanga was the perfect villain, equipped as he was with a luxurious island lair, a laser gun that rose out of an enormous rock, a lethal golden weapon curiously akin to a cigar lighter and, of course, an Oriental midget henchman called Nick Nack.

It’s all hilariously awesome. Having just compiled that list, I admit it’s possibly not too difficult to see why some unfavourable opinions have been expressed about the movie, but at least Golden Gun’s Bond didn’t make dubious headwear choices or engage in intergalactic phaser skirmishes with metal-toothed baddies.

'Albert, I'm starting to think this was a bad idea.'

'Albert, I'm starting to think this was a bad idea.'

Lee hit legendary form as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, masterfully negotiating the White Wizard’s dastardly allegiance to Mordor. When I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring I was terribly shocked to see Saruman revealed as a bad guy, having never read the books. Granted, I wasn’t the most observant fellow but it’s a credit to Christopher Lee that I felt any kind of empathy for his calculating sorcerer.

One of the strengths of Jackson’s trilogy is that it was very well cast; Lee conjured a Saruman who is imposing and merciless, a towering antithesis to Ian McKellen’s excellent Gandalf. One of my favourite moments is when we see Saruman stalking the Uruk-hai birth pits and watching an Orc heave one of its monstrous brethren out of the earth. Yuck.

Those hoping for a respite from onscreen villainy are probably out of luck, because the next Lee role of note, working chronologically, is Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. While, admittedly, the first image that springs to mind is his dual-lightsabered decapitation at the hands of a grumpy Anakin Skywalker, Dooku was a formidable Sith Lord and a pretty potent Force user judging by his duel with Yoda on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones.

I have extreme difficulty imagining anybody else playing the role, which is a testament to Lee’s encapsulation of Dooku’s evil. I’ve never seen an elderly gentleman swing his bent lightsaber around so deftly. Interpret that as you will.

Despite his many memorable roles, Lee’s endeavours were not confined solely to film. He had a rich singing voice, describing music as one of his primary passions outside acting, and was featured on several film soundtracks, notably that of The Wicker Man, a film he also starred in.

Bizarrely, he also delved into heavy metal, collaborating with Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar before releasing a full-length album of his own in 2010, titled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. The album was acclaimed and recognised with the ‘Spirit of Metal’ award at the MetalHammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010. In December 2012, he blessed us with a seasonal treat in the form of an EP of reinterpreted Christmas carols, A Heavy Metal Christmas, featuring such timeless jams as ‘Jingle Hell’. 

He followed A Heavy Metal Christmas with 2014’s Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing, of which he said: ‘It’s light-hearted, joyful and fun. At my age, the most important thing for me is to keep active by doing things that I truly enjoy. I do not know how long I am going to be around, so every day is a celebration and I want to share it with my fans.’ Well, there’s not much to say. Mr Lee, we humbly dip our hats to you.

Christopher Lee has been much admired and awarded over the course of his prolific career, receiving the jewel in his crown, the BAFTA fellowship, in 2011 for his lifetime achievement in film. He once stated: ‘I hate being idle. As dear Boris [Karloff] used to say, when I die I want to die with my boots on.’

Indeed, at the time of his death he was preparing to star alongside Uma Thurman in a drama called The 11th, which would have been his 207th film. While I’ve only opted to cover a select few of his more famous — and, incidentally, nefarious — turns, he was an incredibly versatile actor and ironically seems to have been the very furthest thing from a villain in reality.

His passing is unfortunate and sad, but he squeezed an enormous amount of life out of his years and was a true king of the screen. RIP.